Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Oxford Eights Week

Apologies once again to Sarah’s regular readers! This is Henry, reporting (almost) live from the towpath during Oxford “Eights Week.”

This is the inter-college rowing regatta: 150 crews from the 35 different colleges race each other over 4 days, while a vastly greater number come to watch and/or drink. It’s the only event in the English social calendar to combine speed racing with a full-contact combat sport.

The details are way too complicated to explain here, so you can read about them here. Like so many other Oxford institutions, the rules have evolved bit-by-bit since the 1840s, seemingly designed to be utterly impenetrable to outsiders.

Crews race in line 1 1/2 boat-lengths apart, and the goal is to catch up to the boat ahead of you and hit it (hence “bumps” racing). Contact should be light, but this isn’t always possible at ramming speed. When contact has been acknowledged (the losing cox raising a graceful hand in surrender) both boats stop racing, and swap starting positions the next day.

Curiously, the combination of highly un-maneuverable boats, inexperienced coxes, high speeds and confined spaces doesn’t always end well. Here in the foreground black has bumped the red, so both have stopped, but the crews behind are still racing.

Seconds later, the race is unexpectedly over for everyone in a seven-boat pile-up:

Starting positions are initially determined by where your crew finished last year. Crews which “bump up” on all four days, or who achieve the top spot - “Head of the River” - earn the right to embellish an old oar with the names and deeds of the crew. So the races enshrine tradition, generate their own history, and entrench existing hierarchies all at once. Exactly like the rest of Oxford then…

You can see how the fortunes of different crews wax and wane over the decades with this bumps chart. As you can see, Oriel have dominated the event since the 1970s. Cynicism aside, my former crewmate Bruce and I got a kick watching the Oriel 2nd Eight bump up, musing that our fine performances all those years ago had had a direct, albeit distant, influence on the fortunes of the current crew.

None of these lads were even born last time we raced in the blue and white– back when “Tainted Love” was a song by Soft Cell rather than the Pussy Cat Dolls.

It was great to get back to Oriel and find the traditions alive and well. Great for me, that is. Not so much for the luckless undergraduates I found there. They were subjected to a mind-numbing series of dull stories beginning “Back in my day….” How much do you hate the sad, pathetic old timer who won’t let go? Well, that was me.

First stop was the dorm-room (as the Americans would say) traditionally inhabited by the year’s Captain of Boats. In it are accumulated all the blades, trophies and memorabilia of 30 years of Rowing Dominance. The current occupant was absolutely charming, even though he had a vital race in a few hours and vital exams in a few days. He graciously took time to show us around and even more graciously refrained from beaning me with an oar-handle as I launched into yet another tedious anecdote.

…finally I caught sight of this, all that remains of the Hardy Norseman, the boat in which I learned to cox. At the time it was cutting-edge technology; now it’s a museum-piece. There’s a message there somewhere…

The rest of the boat, I’m guessing, was burned on the paving stones of First Quad after a black-tie “Bump Supper,” historically convened for all the crews of the Head of the River College. At the conclusion of a long, rowdy meal (each crew had its own song and long-winded toasts and congratulations were always in order) we would torch the wooden shell and, linking arms, jump through the flames.

FANTASTIC fun. But then someone’s dress caught fire, and the Department of Health and Safety probably concluded, after a long investigation, that having a hundred drunken teenagers jumping in and out of a blazing fire was neither Healthy nor Safe. Go figure.

Instead, I gather, there is a more sedate dinner in our splendid Dining Hall.

That’s old boy Sir Walter Raleigh looking on, no doubt contemplating a bit of swashbuckling or getting it on with Cate Blanchett.

If the room, the Hall, or the boat-burning seem familiar, it’s because they appear in the cinematic classic Oxford Blues featuring Rob Lowe as the brash go-it-alone Yank who joins the Oriel Boat Club and learns the importance of teamwork and dating Ally Sheedy. Co-stars include Cary Elwes, Julian Sands, and the guy who played Batman’s butler. And me. I appear. As Myself. Patting Rob Lowe on the back after he has been beaten by Julian Sands in a sculling race. You’ll need a big screen, freeze-frame and a magnifying glass, but you can DEFINITELY make me out. Just.

Ah, the memories. But where, you ask, can I get a drink? In my thirst for knowledge, I checked out three boozers. The Head of the River has OK food, OK beer, and great deck overlooking the finish.

At the other end of the course is Iffley Lock.

Five minutes up the hill is a hidden gem: the Prince of Wales. Fantastic food, great beers and, astonishingly, the quintessential rowing cocktail Pimms on tap. Nice one.

Finally, the pub-formerly-known-as-the-Isis-Tavern on the towpath at the start-line is now the Isis Farmhouse, selling tea, coffee and cakes as well as some food. Sarah was not researching for this post, so she is on Elderflower Cordial. She only drinks on the job. Luckily co-researcher, medieval literature expert and keytar heart-throb Professor Aaron Kitch can attest to the mean half of lager. Cheers!


tina said...

No apologies needed Henry, you do a great job!

Sarah, My sister will be posting a special post on one of Maine's flowers this Saturday. She is doing a great job on Maine. I know you must be getting excited on coming back.

Sarah Laurence said...

Henry, I agree with Tina. Well done! You didn't catch any crabs.

Tina, I'll look forward to your sister's post. Thanks for remembering that I need that info for SAD. Maine must be so lovely now.

Alyson | New England Living said...

Delightful post! I knew nothing of this sport before. It's much more aggressive than I imagined!

Wondeful pictures as well. It really brought all your descriptive words to life.

Alyson | New England Living said...

oops, I misspelled wonderful

Anonymous said...

Thanks Tina and Alyson! I'm glad it all made some sense, as it really is a unique and great event. The riverbanks and the roofs of the boathouses are completely packed for the final day, which I would have loved to photograph, but I was out of town on hols.

Oriel bumped up to second place, just missing out on winning the headship. Next year...


Bee said...


I think that I vaguely understand the rules now, but I will let the finer points wash over me.

Your writing voice sounds strangely like Sarah's! Did you deliberately try to conform to her blog format, or are you proving that married couples not only start looking like each other -- they also start writing like each other!

Do you suppose that the film is Netflixable? I remember it coming out . . . but I never got to see it. Of course I am now desperate to see if I can "spy" you in your (ahem) cameo role.

Very entertaining post!

Anonymous said...


Thanks! Interesting point about sounding like Sarah, which I will need to ponder. Certainly my accent is now all over the place (but I need to get my British accent back in time for America so my students will think I'm smart...).

Pathetically, I just looked up Oxford Blues and although it is not on netflix, you can get it on But seriously, it is the worst movie EVER. Please don't waste your rental pounds...

Tiffany Mok said...

As always, Hank solicits comments for anything he does. As such, I will gladly note that any story involving a dress catching on fire will flame my interest. Pun intended.